See you at Dashville

How a front yard music festival became one of the Hunter’s most eclectic venues, attracting musicians from around the world.

Eighteen years ago, Matt ‘Magpie’ Johnston, had an ambitious idea to host a music festival in his front yard. That festival was called Gum Ball and Matt’s ‘front yard’ was 100 acres of sprawling bushland. Now known as Dashville, it is located at Lower Belford in the Hunter Valley. “I guess the short version is that I was a 20-year-old musician and I went traveling around the world and had some pretty big experiences. I came back home with this very strong idea to host a music festival in my front yard,” says Matt. “And the even shorter version is – we had a crack and we’re still here almost 20 years later.

“There wasn’t a lot of festivals back then, there was The Big Day Out, Bluesfest and a couple of festivals down in Victoria. So, back then we were just trying to create an opportunity for connection with other bands, an actual place to connect so we weren’t just travelling around to pubs and playing gigs,” says Matt.

Dashville hosted its first event in 2004, and since then has developed an annual calendar of acclaimed music and arts festivals, concerts and private functions along with a seasonal camp ground.

“We’re pretty hands on with what we do, and I’ve worked really hard over those years to get it to happen. And now it definitely feels a lot more comfortable because we’ve got a set-up which is built for the very purpose of what we’re trying to do,” explains Matt.

What was once a bush paddock with a few horses now has a permanent stage, sitewide power, amenities, a commercial kitchen, various undercover spaces, parking, a skate ramp and can cater for up to 3000 people.

The boy from the bush

Matt and his wife Jess can often be heard playing at Dashville’s various festivals and events in their band, The Magpie Diaries, with a lot of their music inspired by growing up in the Hunter bush. “As a kid, it seemed like this place was almost never ending, like you could just walk forever through the bush. That’s where the name of the Gum Ball Festival comes from – it was a testament to these large inhabitants of the land, these amazing gum trees, that we were playing music and partying under.”

As for the property name Matt says, “I called the property Dashville because my father’s name is Darrell, but everyone calls him Dash and I would be nowhere without my parents’ support. So, it was a tribute to that and to the flavour of the music, the connotations with Nashville in America and also what we wanted to create – it’s just music, city and bush.”
Dashville sits on Wonnarua country bordering the Belford National Park and Matt says he now feels a greater responsibility to this land which he has lived and worked on for most of his life.

“There came a time where I realised that the land we have is quite a rare parcel of land in the Hunter Valley. There’s not a lot of this sort of natural, native bushland left and so for me, in the last five years, that’s been a huge focus to try and just harness those native species and revegetate the bush. I don’t consider myself a landowner, we’re just the people that inhabit this space and we’ve kind of gifted it to the community.”

For Matt, who once worked in construction, that also means upcycling and recycling wherever possible.
“I like to use recycled materials, and I’ve always been a person that’s very resourceful. That’s how I get my nickname, Magpie, because I swoop in on stuff and you know I was working pretty hard in construction for ten years before I was able to even consider not working full time and afford to do the festivals.”

Dashville’s annual festivals:
PigSty in July –
Gather your finest faux furs for a winter celebration around bonfires.
Dashville Skyline – A cosmic weekender of alternative country (October Long Weekend)
Thrashville – Slightly heavier, stay tuned for a date in 2023.
The Gum Ball – Music lovers paradise, usually in April, on ANZAC weekend.

Read more about Dashville in the Winter issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Sally Maguire, photography by Sally Maguire and courtesy of Dashville